As Dorian approaches, media outlets are reporting it as “an unprecedented storm in Florida,” and that Dorian “would be the strongest storm to hit Florida since 1992.”

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by Sharon Owens

As I look around the barren landscape and notice the still clinging blue tarps, the vacant lots where homes and businesses used to stand, the stark and revealing evidence that some forgotten disaster occurred here, I have to wonder, exactly when the rest of the world decided Michael was nothing more than a blip on their radar?

For us, Category 5, Hurricane Michael changed everything. Just ten months ago we were struggling through the first days and weeks following the destruction he left behind.

Those of us who have lived in the aftermath of Michael have weathered countless storms since that day last October. Though progress is being made, the region and its people are suffering.

Now, just ten months later, the threat of another storm has brought into stark and disheartening clarity, the fact that the rest of the world has indeed forgotten.

A recent survey conducted by Rebuild 850, an initiative launched shortly after the storm to advocate on behalf of hurricane victims still trying to rebuild their lives, showed nearly half of respondents would do nothing to help people affected by the hurricane and nearly 75 percent said they would not consider donating money to help with relief efforts (FLAPOL, 26 June 2019).

For those outside the region, who mistakenly believe that all is well, the numbers don’t lie, though they are rarely, if ever reported on.

In Mexico Beach, FL, there is still no gas station, no bank, and no grocery store. Eighty percent of the small coastal community was destroyed by Michael. Image by Tony Miller

Since October 10, 2018, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and increasing uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid and insurance bureaucracies have coalesced into massive storms of their own.

Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew, tearing a path through some of the poorest parts of Florida. Insurers report nearly $7 billion in losses across nearly 150,000 claims that have been filed (The Tampa Bay Times, 26 August 2019).

In Mexico Beach, where Michael’s eye passed, virtually obliterating the tiny coastal community, the losses are staggering and rebuilding is slow.

The city’s budget depends on property taxes. But 70 percent of the storm’s 27,000 homes were damaged or completely destroyed by the storm. Before the storm about 1,1000 people lived in Mexico Beach. Now only 400 or so remain. The city doesn’t currently have a gas station or a grocery store (mypanhandle.com, 18 August 2019).

Residents throughout the entire Panhandle region continue to struggle with the after affects of Michael. The emotional trauma of living through a natural disaster of this magnitude and scope have left many in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety.

As Dorian makes his way across the Atlantic, many residents are still living in tents or ruined homes, waiting for contractors or government funds to help them rebuild. Some fear heavier rains attracting black mold, with roofs still covered by tarps that can leak, even with a typical summer’s afternoon thunderstorm. Others are wary about water damage from flooding, as state and municipalities still work to clear debris, or about weakened trees from Michael that might topple in a lesser storm (Miami Herald, 10 July 2019).

Remnants of the destruction unleashed by Hurricane Michael are still plainly visible throughout the Panhandle even ten months later.

In Bay County too, progress is slow and the after effects of Michael are still readily visible. Debris and damaged buildings remain along Highway 98, the main drag, and 5,000 kids are still considered “homeless,” crashing with friends and family or living in FEMA tents and trailers. About 30 percent of the school kids never came back. More than 50 percent of the apartments still are not livable (Fox News, 31 May, 2019).

The sad truth is, that outside of the impacted areas, the rest of the country is oblivious to the continued hardships survivors of Michael face.

And nothing brings that into clarity more glaringly than listening to the media reports on Dorian. In truth, we do not wish the kind of destruction and the hardships we’ve endured since Michael on anyone. And we recognize that we are not the only region of the country to suffer from natural disasters. All we ask is please, just please don’t minimize our struggles or trivialize our survival by continuing to misreport Michael’s destruction and impact.

The forgotten coast we may be, but rest assured, not a single one of us who lived through that day, who continue to exist in the aftermath, will ever forget.

How can we? The destruction is still all around us.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, editor, contributing author, In the Eye of the Storm and the soon to be released, In the Aftermath of the Storm, coming October, 10, 2019.

Keep your head up Panama City. A feat that has proven much harder as the weeks since Michael have turned into months. Image by Sharon Owens

There have only been four.

Only four recorded Atlantic storms have maintained category five strength as they barreled inland. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, with its maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, was the most intense to ever make landfall. It destroyed nearly all structures in the upper Florida Keys as it came ashore on the evening of September 3, 1935.

Hurricane Camille is the second-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States. Coming ashore just before midnight on August 17, 1969 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, Camille tore a path of total and utter destruction through the region, killing over 140 people with its extremely high storm surge and massive flooding. It was decades before the region fully recovered from the devastation.

Hurricane Andrew made landfall around Ellicott Key, Florida on August 24, 1992 with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, making it the third strongest category five storm on record to hit the U.S. Andrew produced devastating damage across southern sections of Miami and nearly completely wiped Homestead, FL off the map. The damage total in Florida alone after Andrew was over $26 billion.

The most recent category 5 hurricane to devastate the Gulf Coast was Hurricane Michael, who made landfall in the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018 along the Panhandle of Florida. With maximum sustained winds of 161 mph, Michael’s eye came ashore near the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL, nearly eradicating its existence from the landscape. With its minimum central pressure of 27.13 inches, Michael also holds the distinction of being the third-most intense U. S. storm ever (behind Katrina, 2005, and Andrew, 1992).  Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic damage from winds and storm surge in the Panama City, Mexico Beach, and Cape San Blas areas. Michael was directly responsible for at least 79 deaths, including 59 in the U.S. and 15 in Central America and over $53 billion in damage, including $5 billion in property damage in Florida alone and almost $4 billion to Florida’s forestry and farming communities.

An Eerie Silence

In the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle altering our lives in ways we could never have imagined or prepared for. When we emerged from the shelters we had hurriedly taken, we were greeted with an eerie silence that was so total in its completeness that we were left with nothing but a devastating shock that shook us to our very core.

Over the course of the next few days, the stories began to emerge. Stories that broke our hearts while at the same time, inspiring and strengthening our resolve and determination to overcome the chaos all around us.

There were so many stories.

Like the emergency responder who dropped everything immediately after the winds died down, leaving his home to travel to the very center of the destruction in Mexico Beach only to return to his home days later to find that everything of value he’d left behind had been taken by looters.

The story of the young couple who sheltered in a three-story bank building near their townhome, only to be forced into a stairwell as the windows blew out all around them. Their saving grace was the dog leash they’d secured around the stairwell door to protect their pets. As the intense fury of Michael’s winds swept through the building, that leash kept the doors from blowing open, sparing their lives as well.

This destroyed bank building on 23rd Street in Panama City, FL proved to be no shelter at all for those trapped inside during the height of the storm. Image by Rebekah Nelson.

The story of the father and son who exchanged “I love you’s” during the height of the storm, fearing death was imminent as trees fell on their home and they wrestled valiantly to keep the doors closed against the wind while Mom used every pot and bucket available to keep the rain from flooding the interior. Or the story of the new parents forced to sleep in their car with their newborn infant after their home was totally destroyed and they had nowhere else to go. As Tony Simmons, a writer for the News Herald wrote a few days later, “We all became storytellers that day.”

A Mexico Beach resident, Scott Boutell, was close to tears as he spoke to a reporter in front of his wrecked house a few days after the storm: “Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything. There’s nothing left here anymore,” he said.

The Guardian

Only the basics remained.

As the days and weeks began to blur and muddy, we were stripped to the very basics of survival. No power, phones, or internet meant no communication with the world outside. And no way for family members outside the Panhandle to know for certain if their loved ones were still among the living. No grocery stores, gas stations or drinkable water, meant we had to rely on the kindness of strangers and volunteers for our basic needs. Entire neighborhoods banded together to pool available resources and in some cases, to provide shelter for those who lost everything.

Destruction and debris left in Mexico Beach, Florida after Hurricane Michael as emergency first responders and National Guard comb the area door-to-door for survivors. Image by Brandon Perdue/iStock.

The arduous task of digging ourselves out of the destruction, literally, began as soon as equipment could be obtained. Rescue teams went door-to-door, combing through wreckage to check for survivors, helping to dig out those trapped, or to remove the deceased who had not been so lucky. Large red X’s began to appear on doors across the region, a way of marking that the dwelling had been checked and cleared. It was like moving through the set of one of those apocalyptic movies, only the set was real, and we were the bedraggled cast of shell-shocked, weary survivors.

And the eerie quiet remained pervasive.

In the immediate aftermath, 4,000 National Guard were deployed to assist the nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials already on the ground in the area. Crews with dogs searched door-to-door in Mexico Beach, pushing aside debris to get inside badly damage structures.

The Guardian

A strictly enforced dawn to dusk curfew was put in place to protect citizens, but also to deter looters from taking advantage of the plight of others.

Within a day, over 6,000 linemen descended on the area to get the decimated power-grid back on line as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t be quick. It would take over a month to restore the nearly one million homes and businesses affected throughout the region.

Linemen from all over the country, 6,000 in all, traveled to the affected region to help get the over one million customers without power back on line. Image by Jennifer Fenwick.

Work crews removed 31 million cubic yards of debris in Florida left by Hurricane Michael, compared to 3 million for Hurricane Irma, a much broader storm that affected the entire peninsula in 2017, according to T.J. Dargan, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Michael response and recovery effort, The Washington Post.

However, the aftermath still continues unabated. Our homeless numbers are on the rise as FEMA assistance begins to run out and more and more people are forced onto the streets. Livable properties are scarce, and supply and demand has caused rent prices to skyrocket, leaving many without any hope of shelter in the near future. Bay County Schools reports some 4,800 students, about 1 in 6, are living in temporary homes, a classification federal officials consider as homeless.

Down a country road in Bay County, Sam Summers, a heavy-equipment operator, and his wife, Sherry Skinner-Summers, who works with the sheriff’s department, have opened their five-acre lot to people whose houses and trailers were destroyed in the storm. The Summers and their donors provide tents to families and individuals who cannot find or afford hotel rooms or apartments and pass a background check.

The Washington Post

A day-to-day struggle.

Many of the lingering effects of the storm are more intangible. We are visibly fatigued, with stress, anxiety, and depression affecting us more and more. The constant and ever-present reminders of the storm are a blow to our psyche and a punch to the gut every single day.

During all this time, while we have been focused on survival, recovery, and healing, doing all we can to stand on our own, we never anticipated that some of our greatest frustrations and heartache would come at the hands of those we believed we could rely on most to assist us.

If [Federal] funding isn’t passed soon, repair work on Tyndall Air Force Base, which is estimated to make up a third of Bay County’s economy, will grind to a halt on May 1, hurting both the local area and military readiness. Also in jeopardy are repairs to the local VA medical facilities, the U.S Coast Guard facility repairs and federal dollars for the schools, according to Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s office.

Government Technology – Emergency Management

That the world quickly moved on and donations for Hurricane Michael relief have fallen well-short of those for previous storms and disasters hurt, yes, but we could understand that. We knew from the beginning that we were not the only natural disaster affecting the country. Other regions, most notably the victims of the wildfires that burned though California, are also in need of assistance.

No. What has sickened us most as the weeks turn into months, is the partisan politics in Washington that have hampered the passage of the relief bill we so desperately need. As lawmakers continue to spar over the details of the supplemental disaster funding bill, we, and all the other disaster affected regions in the country continue to suffer. We are doing our best, but it’s a day-to-day struggle. In truth, we are still living in a war zone.

“If this hurricane had gone through Central Florida, South Florida, the dollars would have been there by now,” said state Agricultural Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried. “People are out there struggling every day — people whose entire life savings, entire college fund, is basically lying on the ground.”

The Washington Post

There are still trees resting on structures. There are still blue tarps covering damaged roofs. There are still pieces of plywood covering windows. There are still piles of rubble in parking lots and in neighborhoods where structures once stood. People are still living in tents. Others have lost all hope and are leaving the area for good.

Sights like the one above are rampant throughout the area. Image by Jennifer Fenwick

Every day you hear stories of shady contractors taking advantage of desperate, weary people. Of battles with insurance companies leaving victims with scant resources to make much-needed repairs to homes and businesses. You wonder what it’s like to live in the aftermath of a category 5 hurricane?

It’s hell. And until Washington puts aside their partisan bickering and passes the aide package so desperately needed, the flames just continue to rise.

© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Panama City, FL resident and Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle

“Everyone here has a story of loss they struggle to describe and recovery they cannot yet comprehend.”

1. There was no way to adequately prepare.

We’d done this before, many of us, more than once; prepared for the possibility of a hurricane visiting us during the Season. We were used to Summer ushering in, not just the tourists, but the Atlantic Hurricane Season as well. Hurricane Season begins the first of June and lasts through the end of November every year. 

Living in the Panhandle of Florida, we knew that during any given Season we could be at risk, so preparedness was something we took seriously. Many of us had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident we could safely weather Michael as well. 

But there are some things you can’t prepare for. Some things that happen so quickly and change so dramatically that no amount of preparation matters. Hurricane Michael was one of those. 

Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle during the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018. Packing 155-mph sustained winds and a carrying a storm surge in excess of 16-ft, Michael obliterated the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, literally wiping homes, businesses, and structures off the map.

“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, in an article that appeared in Time Magazine. “Other storms, like Hurricane Opal in 1995, actually went from a category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”

In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”

2. The destruction was catastrophic and widespread.

Michael’s path was far reaching. From the coast of the Panhandle deep into the farming and forestry communities of north Florida and Georgia, he carved massive swaths of utter destruction. 

As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. 

“Nothing, and I stress NOTHING, could have prepared us for what we saw,” said Jane Smith, who rode out the storm with her husband and son in their Bay County home. “I think at this point we went into shock.” Smith and her family, like many, lost everything and are now trying to recover and rebuild in this new normal. 

Jane Smith and her family were among thousands who lost everything.

As the days crept by, the nightmare only worsened. Residents in the affected areas struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, faced total destruction of their property.

“Just 1 in 10 of Panama City’s homes and businesses scraped by unscathed. The rest were damaged or destroyed, local officials said. The county property appraiser put the damage total in Bay County alone at $1.3 billion and counting.”


Kathryn Varns | Tampa Bay Times | 27 DEC 2018

“With nowhere to go people were resigned to living in campers, tents, or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian in an October 26, 2018 article by Jamiles Lartey.

Power was destroyed. Water was dangerous to use and consume. Cell and internet service was nonexistent. Cut off from the rest of the world, each day brought new struggles. 

Some recovery efforts began immediately.  Like the over 6,000 linemen who descended on the region within hours to restore power to the 800,000 residents left in the dark. 

Within hours of Michael’s landfall, linemen from around the country descended on the region to assist with restoring power to the over 800,000 residents left in the dark.

Like the acres and acres of felled trees, the region’s power lines and grids suffered the same fate courtesy of Micheal’s more than 155-mph sustained winds.

Search and recovery began within hours with teams of first responders, National Guard, and law enforcement from around the country deployed to the area. Safety was the number one priority in the aftermath of Michael’s intense fury.  

In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through the piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town. 

Even now, almost six months after Michael, Mexico Beach is in tatters. According to a WJHG/WECP story which aired on March 28, “There are only three restaurants currently open in Mexico Beach, three of its four hotels have been demolished, and the other one is still being rebuilt.”

“This landscape is changed forever. For lack of a better term, desolate,” said Al Burnett, a Mexico Beach resident, whose home was literally lost to Michael’s storm surge. “My best educated guess is that things will never be right for maybe the next three or four years … maybe never.”

The Guardian | 29 October 2018

The impact from Michael is not just limited to the coastal region of the Florida Panhandle. The widespread catastrophic damage spread well inland as Michael remained at hurricane strength into the rural and farming communities of Florida and southwest Georgia, before passing through Virginia and North Carolina, and then finally making his way back out to the Atlantic.

3. The World moved on. We could not.

Traveling anywhere in the impacted regions feels more akin to moving through the aftermath of an apocalypse than home. The constant and ever-present reminders are a blow to the psyche and a punch to the gut every single day.

Destroyed landmarks, street signs, and buildings make navigating the storm ravaged region tenuous at best.

“People get lost driving around because landmarks were wiped out. They spray-paint their address on a piece of plywood and lean it against the garage door. They eat dinner in a McDonald’s surrounded by construction workers chowing down on quarter-pounders” (Tampa Bay Times).

And while basic necessities have been restored, life in the region is far from normal as people struggle to make a way in this dramatically altered landscape. 

Currently, some displaced families are living in a tent city in the backyard of one generous woman who decided that instead of turning her back, she would do something. People have been forced to take shelter in campers, parked in the driveways of homes without roofs, sometimes without structures at all. Others have been forced to return to their all-but-leveled apartment complexes because there is simply nowhere else to go.

As of mid December, FEMA has given out about $28 million in housing repair grants, approved about 14,000 homeowners and renters for rental assistance, and had about 600 families staying in hotels. But without properties to rent and hotels quickly filled to capacity these are short-term solutions. Once the money runs out, with still no home to return to, what becomes of those already struggling before the storm? 

To make matters worse. Donations for Michael to three of the top disaster aide organizations have fallen well below the national average for similar storms, like Harvey, Florence, and Irma, who also hit the South in the past two years. “Survivors of Hurricane Michael fear that they’ve been forgotten,” (The Washington Post, 6 APRIL 2019).

4. The numbers don’t lie.

Since October 10, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid bureaucracy threaten to swirl into a massive storm of its own.

  • In Bay County alone, 5,500 students have had to leave their living situations because of hurricane damage (News Herald, 28 MAR 2019).
  • Skyrocketing rent prices have further compounded the housing crisis (My Panhandle, 22 MAR 2019).
  • Health officials report that signs of mental health problems and trauma are on the rise following Michael, including an increase in the number of Baker Act incidents in the school district (WJHG, 13 MAR 2019). 
  • More than 3 million acres of Florida’s forestry industry were severely damaged by Michael and about half of the damage was catastrophic, meaning 95 percent of the trees were lost, according to the Florida Forestry Service. With large tracts of managed land in the region, the storm is expected to cost the timber industry more than $1.3 billion (News Herald, updated 1 APR 2019).
  • In Florida, cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop, which was ready for harvesting when it was swept away by the 155-mph winds. Aquaculture along the Gulf Coast, including oyster farming, suffered 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael (Jim Turner, News Service of Florida). 
  • Michael barreled through Georgia at Cat 3 strength causing nearly $2.5 billion in damage, to the state’s agricultural industry. State agriculture commissioner Gary Black said the losses were “our worst dreams being realized.” Crops of all kinds—cotton, timber, and vegetables—suffered heavy damages. (Atlanta Magazine, 17 JAN 2019). 
  • Hurricane Michael left nearly seven times the debris of Hurricane Irma, which barreled across 45 counties in 2017 (Pensacola News Journal, 8 JAN 2019). 
  • Hurricane Michael is responsible for 35 deaths in Florida, 45 total (NBC Miami, 28 OCT 2018).


“Of all the Florida Panhandle areas affected by Michael, Bay County was hardest hit: Officials said almost three-quarters of its 68,000 households were affected. Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, who is leading a hurricane recovery initiative, estimated about 20,000 people were homeless in the weeks after the October storm.”


AP News | 4 MARCH 2019

5. The future may be uncertain, but we remain determined.

As we navigate this strange new world, there are days when the frustration and grief become overwhelming. Days when the determination grows stronger. Days when the fatigue and stress settle deeper into our bones. 

A lone cross carved from the remains of a tree is the only sign of hope in the battered Sandy Creek region of the Florida Panhandle.

Through it all, we try to remain hopeful. The world may have moved on, the impacts of Michael may still be revealing themselves, recovery and rebuilding may be ongoing with no definitive end in sight, but there’s one thing we’re all certain of, it will be a long time, and a lot of hard work, before we are OK again.

© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Bay County resident, author/editor,
In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle

Nothing could’ve prepared us. Not for this. Though we did prepare. We boarded up our windows. Stocked up on supplies. Safeguarded our valuables. But this time would be so much different than those that had come before. Pretty soon, all we had left were our prayers. And our fervent hope that we’d still be alive when it was over.

We’d done this before, many of us, more than once; prepared for the possibility of a hurricane visiting us during the Season. We were used to Summer ushering in, not just the tourists, but the Atlantic Hurricane Season as well. Hurricane Season begins the first of June and lasts through the end of November every year.

Living in the Panhandle of Florida, we knew that during any given Season we could be at risk, so preparedness was something we took seriously. Many of us had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident we could safely weather Michael as well.

But there are some things you can’t prepare for. Some things that happen so quickly and change so dramatically that no amount of preparation matters. Hurricane Michael was one of those.

Within hours the potential Category 3 impact had grown into a nightmare of monster proportions. We awoke on Wednesday, October 10, to a very different situation than the one we had gone to bed with the night before. There would be nowhere to hide from Michael. It was too late to try to evacuate so we rushed to get to safety or hunkered down where we were, hoping, praying for a miracle.

“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, in an article that appeared in Time Magazine. “Other storms, like Hurricane Opal in 1995, actually went from a category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”

Michael makes his way onshore in the Florida Panhandle during the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018. At almost Category 5 strength, Michael’s 155-mph sustained winds and over 15-ft. storm surge, obliterated the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL.
I shot this image with my cell phone around 11:15 AM on October 10, from the foyer windows of the Panama City Surgery Center, where my family and I were sheltering with other employees and their loved ones. During the height of the storm, we could hear transponders exploding all around us, metal being ripped from the roof of the structure, trees snapping, and limbs and other debris barreling into the building. Some of the worse moments occurred as the barometric pressure bottomed making our ears and heads pound. There were moments when it felt like the walls were actually breathing and the building was shifting on its foundation. At one point the foyer doors were breached by the intensity of the wind.

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall at approximately 12:15 p.m. along the Florida Panhandle. A deadly Category 4 storm (just two miles shy of Category 5 strength) with sustained winds of 155-mph, gusts reaching a staggering 185-mph, and a minimum central pressure of 919 millibars, Michael made his presence known as the third strongest hurricane on record to hit the U.S.

In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle | Jennifer N. Fenwick

In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm went from a tropical storm to a projected CAT 3 at landfall in six hours yesterday. It’s not behaving normally. It intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”

As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare. “Nothing, and I stress NOTHING, could have prepared us for what we saw,” said Jane Smith, who rode out the storm with her husband and son in their Bay County home. “I think at this point we went into shock. It looked as if a bomb had gone off and the silence was eerie. All we could see everywhere we looked was downed trees, all the trees. Those that did still stand looked like barren twigs. Most every house in view had fallen trees on their roofs, in their yards, on their fences. They were everywhere. We walked around like zombies. We saw the destruction, but just couldn’t comprehend it.”


Jane Smith, like many, ended up losing her home to Michael and is now living in a trailer provided by FEMA as she awaits rebuilding. She took this image a few days after the storm. “Seeing the devastation now,” she remarked, “It’s truly a miracle we survived.”
You can read Smith’s entire story and the poetry she wrote following the storm in the book, In the Eye of the Storm, to which she is a contributing author.

Search and recovery began immediately with teams from around Florida deployed to the Panhandle. In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town. Authorities say it could be months, even years, before anything approaching “normal” returns to the region.

Image by Jennifer Fenwick

“This morning, Florida’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday morning. “So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. … This hurricane was an absolute monster.”

Doyle Rice | USA Today

In the first few weeks following the storm, residents in the Florida Panhandle struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, are still living in campers, tents or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian.

Like the felled trees, power poles were snapped by the 155-mph wind, lines were down everywhere, and substations were damaged leaving over 800,000 residents without power across the region. Linemen from all over the country worked 16-hour days trying to restore power. In all, about 6,000 tree service and line workers were deployed to the area within a matter of hours, The Pensacola News Journal reported.

As the days, weeks and months have passed, the initial shock and focus on survival have given way to grief and frustration as we learn to navigate our way through this strange new world. There are reminders of that day everywhere we look. There’s just no escaping the carnage. There are deep scars on our landscape and deeper ones carried within.

Property damage in the impacted region is estimated at over $5 billion dollars. The current housing crisis is compounding problems as residents who lost everything have nowhere to go. One local woman has opened up her property to victims of Michael who now, through no fault of their own, find themselves without shelter. Images like this home in the Cove area of Panama City, by Terry Kelly, are common place throughout the region.

For weeks after Michael, we were cut off from the world outside. Internet and cell phone service, like the power, was completely wiped out. When the power poles fell, they took the internet and cable lines with them. In addition, the major cell phone carrier in the area suffered extensive damage to their towers and network cables, all of which were above ground. It was months before services like cable, internet, cell phones, and wifi were restored.

We sort of got used to being cut off. Unfortunately, once we were able to connect with the outside world, we quickly realized that it had moved on without us.

Image by Tony Miller

The Tampa Bay Times posted an article that brings into stark and upsetting reality how little is being done outside our storm-ravaged area to assist with recovery and rebuilding. The road ahead is a long and rough one for the afflicted region. We cannot do this alone.

“Hurricane Michael was a major disaster, but big donors haven’t treated it as one,” the article states.

According to Emily L. Mahoney in a Times/Herald Tallahassee article, “The Panhandle’s low profile meant the media attention came and went, so the disaster never drew the major corporate donations that other storms did. That’s a harsh reality — just like the conditions in which thousands of Floridians still find themselves living more than four months after the storm struck. Tarps on roofs. Families living in tents. People taking refuge in their cars.”

According to the Times/Herald analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations to Hurricane Michael recovery fall far below donations for recent landmark hurricanes to hit the South such as Florence, Irma, and Harvey.

The level of damage left behind by Hurricane Michael is catastrophic. According to Mahoney, “Those who felt the full force of Michael were in Florida’s Panhandle, where state officials estimate property damage at more than $5 billion. That’s more than Irma. Yet somehow, at least nationally, Hurricane Michael is not even a topic of conversation.”

Destruction to the timber and forestry industries throughout the impacted region is estimated at over $1.3 billion. “This is a catastrophic loss to the forestry industry,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam H. Putnam. Image by David Herring.

“Georgia has long led in the production of several renowned commodities and now we have the dubious distinction of also leading in the devastation and incredible loss of these prominent crops,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a statement. “These are generational losses that are unprecedented and it will take unprecedented ideas and actions to help our farm families and rural communities recover.”

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The impact from Michael is not just limited to the coastal region of the Florida Panhandle. The widespread catastrophic damage spread well inland as Michael remained at hurricane strength into the rural and farming communities of Florida and southwest Georgia, before passing through Virginia and North Carolina, and then finally making his way back out to the Atlantic.

The powerful storm flattened trees, demolished crops and destroyed chicken coops throughout southwest and middle Georgia. Agriculture industry losses could reach nearly $3 billion, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and Georgia Forestry Commission.

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

In Florida, cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop, which was ready for harvesting when it was swept away by the 155-mph winds. Aquaculture along the Gulf Coast, including oyster farming, suffered 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael (Jim Turner |News Service of Florida).

Downed trees are seen from the air at Tyndall Air Force base in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael near Mexico Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

While post-storm analysis is still being performed and the argument surrounding upgrading Michael to CAT 5 is ongoing, the facts remain, this storm was a monster bringing widespread, apocalyptic destruction to the Florida Panhandle and further inland, that will take years to heal.

Nearly five months after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida Panhandle, economic setbacks and delays have made recovery increasingly difficult for Florida Panhandle residents trying to rebuild their homes, and their lives.


Allie Raffa, | Fox News, February 28, 2019

As we navigate this strange new world, there are days when the frustration and grief become overwhelming. Days when the determination grows stronger. Days when the fatigue and stress settle deeper into our bones.

Through it all, we try to remain hopeful. The world may have moved on, the impacts of Michael may still be revealing themselves, recovery and rebuilding may be ongoing with no definitive end in sight, but there’s one thing we’re all certain of, it will be a long time, and a lot of hard work, before we are ok again.

© Jennifer N. Fenwick

Hurricane Michael at a Glance

LANDFALL: Michael made landfall at 12:15 p.m. local time on October 10, near Mexico Beach, FL
 
STRENGTH: High-end CAT 4 with sustained wind speeds at 250 KM/H or 155-MPH; Minimum central pressure, 919 MB. The Florida Panhandle took the brunt of Michael’s fury, suffering apocalyptic damage as the storm peeled off rooftops, uprooted and snapped trees in half, destroyed homes and businesses, and caused extensive flooding.
 
HISTORICAL: Michael was the strongest storm to ever come ashore in the Florida Panhandle, as well as the first CAT 4 to make landfall in the area. Michael was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Camille, who in 1969, made landfall along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with 174-MPH peak winds and a storm surge of 24.6 FEET recorded in Pass Christian, MS.
 
STRONGEST WINDS OBSERVED: Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida recorded winds gusts reaching 224 KM/H or 139-MPH.
 
STORM SURGE: Apalachicola, FL recorded storm surge reaching 8.5 FEET.  Near Mexico Beach, where the eye passed, National Weather Service buoy measured waves greater than 30-FEET before it stopped working.
 
OTHER FACTS: The death toll in Florida has risen to 35 in Florida and 45 overall, with at least 10 deaths reported in other states. Property damage following Michael is estimated at more than $5 billion. Damage to Florida’s forestland is currently estimated at $3 billion.

There will never be another Hurricane Michael. The name was retired following the 2018 Hurricane Season due to the storm’s catastrophic intensity.
Arial image of Mexico Beach, Florida following Michael (Associated Press/AP)

Nearly five months after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida Panhandle, economic setbacks and delays have made recovery increasingly difficult for Florida Panhandle residents trying to rebuild their homes, and their lives.

Allie Raffa, Fox News, February 28, 2019

When I set out to capture the stories of Hurricane Michael across the Panhandle, I never anticipated the impact, In the eye of the Storm, would have on the region devastated by the October 10, 2018 monster storm. It started out as a way for survivors to share their stories, their grief, and heartbreak, and their hopes for the future.

In the weeks since In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle was published, the outpouring of support and engagement has been humbling.

“We need more people like you,” said Tina Rudisill in a message she sent me via social media after purchasing two copies of the book, one for her and one for a friend. “You can show the world our journey.”

Rudisill and her husband, both disabled, rode out the Category 4 storm in their home in Panama City. “We lost everything but our lives,” she explained. “We had just bought our home two years ago and it is devasting seeing everything destroyed.”

Rudisill is not alone in her grief. There are so many stories like hers across the region. So many I wish I could have included in the book. So many that deserve to be shared. As I continue to meet people, to listen to their voices, to provide comfort where I can, I’m inspired to continue this journey.

“Perhaps a follow-up book will come out of this,” I told Rudisill in my reply to her message, “An anniversary edition marking one-year following the storm. Stories of progress and hope in the aftermath.”

“Oh my goodness,” she immediately responded, “What an awesome idea. A follow-up of healing and starting over is so needed for the communities impacted.”

Thousands of homes were destroyed rendering them unlivable throughout the region. Including the home of Tina Rudisill and her husband, who rode out the Category 4 Michael in their Panama City residence. Image by Terry Kelly/Shutterstock

“It pulls at the heart strings to hear from other people that survived the storm and to hear their stories of strength and moving forward after such major devastation to this area. Anyone that doesn’t know or isn’t struggling to come back from this storm really needs to read this.”

Amazon Reviewer, February 24, 2018

Our book is not the only one telling the stories of the heartbreak of the people living in the aftermath of this historic storm. Survivors: Work Created in the Wake of Hurricane Michael, released on Amazon November 20, 2018, is a collection of poems, essays, short stories, artwork, and images compiled by Tony Simmons of the Panama City News Herald and local artist, Jayson Kretzer.

Mike Caz Cazalas, also from the News Herald, produced a beautiful book of compelling photographs and newspaper front pages documenting Michael’s impact across the Panhandle. Michael is a collector’s item that will forever commemorate October 10th and the immediate weeks following the storm. A portion of the proceeds from both of these publications, as well as our own, are being donated to the Hurricane Michael Relief Fund to assist with rebuilding across the region.

Memoirs of Michael – The Hurricane is a Facebook page dedicated to sharing survivor stories. The Blog, created by Ashley Conner and Photographer, Cierra Camper, and recently featured on WJHG-TV’s Morning Show, tells the stories of the men and women who survived Michael and are committed to rebuilding their communities.

October 10, 2018, is a day the Florida Panhandle will never forget. The day, our lives and our cities were dramatically altered, irrevocably and forever. Compiling the stories, poetry, and images submitted for this project was raw and real. I realized going in, what a huge undertaking and responsibility this task was. I also realized that we could not tell every story; and there were thousands and thousands. What we hoped instead, was that the stories we were able to tell would resonate, and that in doing so, In the Eye of the Storm, would become a voice for the region.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, editor/contributor, In the Eye of the Storm
Cities just north of Bay County, including Marianna (pictured) suffered the destruction of Michael. It will be a long time before this region heals. Image by Robert Blouin/Shutterstock.

Update

Promotion and outreach for In the Eye of the Storm are ongoing. Our goal is to reach a wider audience and to raise as much money as we can for local recovery efforts.

We recently made our first donation to the Hurricane Michael Relief Fund from book sales and will continue to do so for the long-run. Some of the contributors and I have joined efforts to reach out to area individuals and businesses for sponsorships so we can get the book into the local market.

Media coverage here and in surrounding areas has been wonderful. WJHG-TV presented our story on their Morning Show with Paris Janos and in a piece by Neysa Wilkins, which aired during their news broadcasts. The Panama City News Herald’s Tony Simmons was gracious to write a story about the book in his feature Book Notes.

We are participating in a book signing event at My Favorite Books in Tallahassee, FL, on March 23 and are planning to host one locally as well.

We’ve also sent out press releases to national media outlets to garner exposure and coverage. Our momentum continues to grow. All of us who contributed to this project feel a deep responsibility for getting the word out and for correcting misperceptions that all is well here.

“The contributors and I are humbled by the outpouring of support and the responses we’ve received thus far. For those who feel left out or forgotten, that was never our intention. We’re part of the communities that survived that day and are living in the aftermath. Know that your stories, your pain is interwoven in every word. How could it not be. We are in this together.”

~ Jennifer N. Fenwick